Dishing up the Dirt with Food Blogger Ken Peng of “Ken Eats Gainesville”
Ken Peng takes a good meal seriously.
A Gainesville resident of 11 years, Ken Peng started the food review blog, Ken Eats Gainesville in 2013 as a way to pass time in between jobs. Self-described as reviewing Gainesville’s good, bad and inedible, Peng has gained a following for his honesty and unfiltered critiques.
With over 19,000 likes on Facebook, Peng has become a well-known source for Gainesville eats since the blog’s conception.
We spoke with Peng to discuss being a critic, dishing bad reviews and how to get the most out the local food and drink scene.
Does being a critical eater make food more or less enjoyable?
KP: As much as I’d like to, I can’t turn that mode off. Being critical extends to every interest I have from music to cars to my professional life. I’m a nitpicky person in general.
Surprisingly though, I think it makes dining out more enjoyable. Even the bad experiences, and because I’m usually with like-minded friends, it makes for pretty good conversation when it’s not a good experience. The flip side of it is that I pay attention to every single aspect whenever I go to a restaurant, and I feel like when anyone appreciates the details in things, it makes that experience all the better.
What warrants giving a restaurant a second chance?
KP: If I see them addressing issues that I raise in my review, or if friends and readers tell me that things have improved. Otherwise, a couple visits is usually enough for me to know if the place is for me or not. That said, I understand there are off days and good days, but there are things like menu, décor, prices, and attitude that are far less variable.
If someone takes the time to read my review, I believe they are smart enough to form their own opinion.
How do you feel about possibly damaging a restaurant’s reputation after one try?
KP: This is delicate, and I try to approach things carefully. It may seem harsh when I write negative things about a place, but I try to be fair about it. I don’t necessarily feel one way or another about it, I just want a conversation to be had. Maybe the owners and chefs will dismiss it, or maybe they’ll adjust.
There have actually be multiple instances where an owner has gotten offended and blocked me on social media, but then readers and friends will message me and say “hey, they made a bunch of changes you suggested.” Friends of the restaurant may jump on and still mudslinging, or people who disagree will get offended. But for the most part, people will try it out on their own and see for themselves, or the people who dislike what I do will continue to support them.
My reviews are purely my opinion and an account of my experience at the restaurant. It’s why I don’t assign an arbitrary rating or star system to it. If someone takes the time to read my review, I believe they are smart enough to form their own opinion.
What was your most memorable response after giving a restaurant a bad review?
KP: How do I even choose!? There has been a pretty wide spectrum of responses from restaurant owners and readers alike. But I think my favorite was the owner of Jake’s Bistro, a now-closed restaurant in Alachua. I caught him stealing photos off Yelp profiles of other restaurants and passing them off as his own. He wasn’t so keen on that.
When I tried his restaurant months later, my table sent back a dish and he lost his mind, kicking us out. The whole thing was documented in my review of the place. Long story short, I gave our very sweet waitress a large tip and told her I was sorry she worked for a jerk, went next door to Conestogas, and Jake’s Bistro closed a couple months later. It was a disaster. I think my bruschetta was soggy Texas Toast with melted mozzarella.
Do you feel that there are a shortage of good taco places in Gainesville? Who is your #1 taco place besides Cilantro Tacos?
KP: There aren’t really any good Mexican places in town, and for the most part, they’re just really bad white people Mexican restaurants. But an exception is La Pasadita. Their tacos are fantastic, particularly their campechano. A lot of people got up in arms when I recently stated that La Pasadita and Cilantro Tacos are the only two Mexican places I’ll eat around here, because I did not include La Tienda. Well, I’ll include them when it doesn’t take them an hour to make three tacos every time I visit.
What do you cook at home, if you do?
KP: I really enjoy cooking at home, and try to do it often. Mostly Italian if I’m cooking for myself or a few friends, I make a mean Bucatini Carbonara (real Carbonara, none of that cream nonsense) and some damn fine BBQ, I’ll put my smoked pork butt and ribs up against any restaurant’s in town.
But I enjoy making things like Tuscan chicken, pot roast, chili, roast pork, fried chicken and braised short ribs. I like meat. Pasta is great because it saves well for multiple meals, and who doesn’t love carbs? Bring the writers over, I’ll make y’all something tasty. I’m really excited about these cured egg yolks I recently made, they’re phenomenal over pasta!
What’s the most difficult type of food to mess up?
KP: This is a good question. I would say a simple breakfast plate is pretty hard to screw up so long as you start off with some decent eggs and meats. Just some eggs, bacon and potatoes. I’ve definitely had some pretty awful overcooked scrambled eggs before, but it’s not often.
What do you think Gainesville’s food scene is missing?
KP: A French restaurant, a proper butcher shop, and a good donut shop. Seriously though, why hasn’t anyone capitalized on the fancy donut trend? I’ve jokingly asked my friend that owns The Salty Donut in Miami to open up in Gainesville, and even he was surprised we didn’t already have a gourmet donut shop.
I feel like when anyone appreciates the details in things, it makes that experience all the better.
What does it do best?
KP: Specialty restaurants. This has been a recent trend, but we have a number of restaurants here that do one thing and one thing very very well. Crane Ramen, Tamal, LEJ Pretzel, MidnightCookies, Do-Lish, and even Mayflower Cellars all fall under this category for me. It’s a trend that I definitely would not mind seeing continue as Gainesville grows up.
What is one of the biggest culinary faux pas you’ve seen?
KP: Not necessarily a faux pas, but I get a little sad inside whenever I go to Yummy House and see someone ordering fried rice and sweet and sour chicken. It’s one of the only legit Chinese restaurants in town, and people just go with the same American Chinese food. There is a stark difference in all these little take-out shops that all seemingly have the same menu and real Chinese food. But that’s a whole other can of worms I won’t open up. I guess my answer would be someone ordering a well-done steak or putting A1 sauce on an expensive cut.
The biggest thing I can say is, do not confine yourself to the area around campus and downtown.
What restaurant is your favorite at the moment and why?
KP: I think my obsession with Crane Ramen is well documented, so much that people have accused me of getting kickbacks and free meals from them. I can assure you that my bank account says otherwise.
Why is it my favorite? It’s a labor of love. Everything is made from scratch there other than the noodles, and those come from the best noodle maker in the country (Sun Noodles). They care about their ingredients, they’re creative, and they’re one of few restaurants pushing the culinary scene in Gainesville beyond the years of mediocre college fare. Also, because I love ramen.
How do you suggest someone take full advantage of and get the most out of the food scene in Gainesville?
KP: The biggest thing I can say is, do not confine yourself to the area around campus and downtown. Gainesville is not very big, but it has some very good restaurants scattered throughout town and in the surrounding areas.
Sabore and Dave’s New York Deli are both great and out in Town of Tioga, Bangkok Square and Garlic & Ginger are west of I-75 on Archer Road, Cilantro Tacos’ originally location is in Newberry, La Pasadita is on the north side of town in an industrial area, while Root & Pecker and Uppercrust Bakery are northwest of campus.
Pick your ideal meal.
KP: This is pretty tough to choose, but I’m going to keep it simple. An Old Fashioned from TJ Palmieri (formerly of 2nd Street Speakeasy, soon to be head honcho at Madrina’s), Foie Gras Cronuts from Sabore for an appetizer, a bowl of Shoyu with a side of Rayu from Crane Ramen, and a slice of Coconut Cake from Blue Gill.
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